Sunday, December 31, 2006

Submission, tolerance and death: A review of Murder in Amsterdam

For Christmas, VolMom bought us a copy of Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance.

Theo Van Gogh was murdered by Mohammed Bouyeri, a radical Islamist. Van Gogh, a controversial Dutch filmmaker, was shot then stabbed when he cycling home one day. Mr Bouyeri then had a shoot out with Dutch police, was captured alive and later convicted of murder. Mr Bouyeri was not particularly poor and had received a good education. He had turned to radical Islam and then to murder.

But how could this happen? The Dutch pride themselves on their tolerance. A tolerance bred in native Dutch and inculcated in the immigrant populations.

Ostensibly, Van Gogh was killed over this film - Submission: Part I. A film he directed and which was written by Ayan Hirsi Ali - a Somali born asylum seeker - who eventually became a Dutch citizen and member of parliament. Go and look at the film and see if it was worth all that trouble - Van Gogh's death and Hirsi Ali's life spent on the run, the threatened removal of her Dutch citizenship, the end of her political career in Holland. Go and have a look at this deliberately provocative film, written by a Muslim woman. Bear with it - it's only 10 minutes long - and don't be put off because it starts in Arabic with Dutch subtitles; it quickly switches to English.

Ian Buruma, the author of Murder in Amsterdam is a journalist and academic living in the US, born and raised in Holland, and with a similar privileged background in the same area the Theo Van Gogh was raised. He went back to Holland after the murder to find out what had happened to the tranquil Dutch sense of tolerance - first abruptly ended by both the success of anti-immigration, anti-Muslim politician Pim Fortuyn and then by his assassination by a radical vegan. (Yes, that's right - fur is murder.)

Although Mr Buruma explores questions of identity, faith, politics, and tolerance in Holland - those living in Europe - particularly those in moderate, cool Northern Europe will see reflections of what is happening in their own countries. Perhaps in Holland, the situation is magnified, because of the peculiarities of Dutch culture and history, in particular the dichotomy between the bravery of some individual Dutch during WW2 in protecting the Jewish population but the stark reality that most Dutch said nothing and most Dutch Jews were exterminated.

The Dutch are proud of their role in the Enlightenment, their tolerance, their progressiveness. In many ways, rightly so. And this book explores how many on the left as well as the "Enlightenment right" (where I am increasingly placing myself) have begun to have deep suspicisions of not just political Islamism, but also Islam itself - and how it may roll back the hard-won advances in universal civil liberties.

Questioned about his hostility to Islam, [Pim] Fortuyn said "I have no desire to have to go through the emancipation of women and homosexuals all over again."

But the book also explores how second generation, Dutch-born Muslims can turn against the nominal, moderate or "village traditional" Islam. The problem of Islamism in Europe is not just a problem of immigrants and zealous converts, but a problem with a source in the host culture as well. What is it about European culture that prevents it from assimilating immigrants and bringing them into the host culture - at least bringing them in enough.

I am an immigrant to the UK myself - and though white, well-educated, Protestant and partly English by heritage, I can never become English. I could never become English the way my British husband could become American if he chose to embrace it. English people are shocked (but pleased) when I tell them I'm an ardent England football fan. Ethnicity and race and nationality and culture are too intertwined in Europe. So how much harder must it be for the brown, the truly foreign (at least the English don't consider me truly foreign), and the differently faithed to really integrate? Not that immigrants don't have a responsibility themselves to respect and interact with the host culture.

Buruma asks these questions, but he doesn't provide any answers. For a book of reportage, it curiously suspenseful.

What others have said:

Kevin Breathnach at Disillusioned Lefty leaves the book off his essential reading list because it doesn't cover the tenents of radical Islam:

...Buruma delves not into the world of radical and political Islam (that is ‘Islamism’) as explicated by Paul Berman. Not once do we read of Sayyid Qutb, Ayman al-Zarahiri, Hassan al-Banna, Abu al-Mawdudi or even Osama Bin Laden. These are the key figures in the history of fundamentalist Islam; to know them is to at least begin to understand the threat the West faces.

Well, yes. But almost as much of the book deals with the Dutch reaction to National Socialism and it doesn't expose the basics of Nazism either. Radical and political Islam isn't treated as a "well, maybe it's ok" - Buruma clearly does not approve of it. Radical Islam is not the topic of the book, the book is about how we in the West accomodate, tolerate, ignore or battle against Islamism.

Piers Dorsman at Peaktalk, understands that Buruma's, but rightly calls him on his failure to make the link between the fundamental teachings of faith (or philosophy) and the eventual extremes a faith or belief may take.

There has been a fair bit of criticism for Buruma, most notably that he failed to take a clear moral stance and was not sufficiently judgmental in taking sides in the conflict between free societies and nascent Islamism. To be frank, I was relieved to for once have a book in my hands that did not do that. Buruma is clear enough in what he thinks about jihadism, and instead gives us equal access to the Dutch and Moroccan cultures, and more specifically to Theo van Gogh’s life and Mohammed Bouyeri’s life.


In the end of the book Buruma tries to explore ways where tolerance could neutralize the perils of radical Islam and hopes that religion can ultimately become the subject of reasoned debate, even for Muslims. This quote from the writer makes it clear where the boundaries between the Koran and fundamentalism are:

“Revolutionary Islam is linked to the Koran, to be sure, just as Stalinism and Maoism were linked to Das Kapital, but to explain the horrors of China’s man made famines or the Soviet Gulag solely by inviting the writings of Karl Marx would be to miss the main point”
Yes, correct, but this conclusion can also be explained in another direction by arguing that however well-meaning the basic tenets of Islam are, they have the potential to be turned around into a deadly totalitarian ideology. Theo van Gogh in his own distinctive way was not given to this type of socio-political analysis, but instinctively understood the dangers of history in the making. Yet at the heart he remained a Dutchman, a little too complacent and somewhat oblivious of the immediate perils. One can only imagine the panic he must have felt when he was butchered to death on an Amsterdam street.

And Richard at The Peking Duck said:

Ian Buruma's Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance is a slender volume with big type and lots of white space that nevertheless forced me to challenge some of my most cherished liberal principles. I loved this book because it made me think. It showed me a side of life in contemporary Europe that I didn't know much about. Yes, I had an idea of the Muslim 'ghettoes' that have become a standard feature of many great European cities, but I must admit, I hadn't realized how serious a threat they now pose.


But Buruma goes on to describe the unique feature of many Islam immigrants in Europe that does indeed place them in a special category - a disrespect for the laws and values of their host nations. Living in Amsterdam's 'dish city' is one thing, but when young Muslims start to throw bricks through the window of a gay bar on the fringe of the nieghborhood and threaten their patrons, a great big red flag is raised. It's one thing to bring your culture with you. It is quite another to disrespect the culture and laws of your host. In the eyes of the radical Muslims Buruma describes (and he describes many types of Muslims, from the most tolerant and liberal to the most obsessively deranged), homosexuality is expressly denounced in the Quran and it cannot be tolerated. Do we welcome into our borders those who can rationalize the murder of gays?
I think this final point from Richard is important. The left must start to recognise that acceptance and tolerance do have their limits. And we risk throwing away the important social progress that has been made in the 20th century if we allow a radical political Islam to flourish by turning a blind eye to what it means. (And if you have any doubts, read this draft constitution for the caliphate).

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Saddam is dead

Saddam Hussein, the ex-butcher of Iraq, is dead. I don't feel any differently about it than I did yesterday, when I anticipated his demise.

I mostly feel sorry for the Kurdish Iraqis who now won't have the centrepiece for the trial of those who perpetrated the horrible crimes against them.

Update: and here's an anecdote about those Iraqi Kurds and Saddam Hussein and substitute teacher in a Nashville school.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Big giant sloths

We've been like big giant sloths this Christmas. We have gone to the park and we did make one disastrous attempt at post-holiday sales shopping, but mostly we've been hibernating. We've been watching tv and reading books and lounging around the house like big giant sloths.

Not yesterday, though. Perhaps it was the slightly less grey sky or the warmer temperatures, but I spent the morning gardening and the afternoon at the Natural History Museum.

We haven't been in a while, but I thought it might be a nice idea to see the animatronic dinosaurs and maybe have a look at the gems and minerals and so forth. I knew it would be crowded, kids are out of school and many parents are off work and kids love dinosaurs and well... We'd been at Christmas time before and knew the drill.

I had no idea exactly how croweded it would be. Apparently, the Natural History Museum has been cashing in on its holiday appeal. There's now a Christmas fair and a giant ice skating rink (which costs about $20 a head - seriously!) and a carousel.

ice skating at the Natural History Museum

Oh...and there's a big, giant queue to get into the Natural History Museum.

long queues

This queue stretched all the way from the door to the street in a snarling tangle of impatient children and weary adults - and it didn't seem to be moving any too quickly.

I didn't want any of that, so I told the Vol-in-Law that we should just find another museum (the Victoria and Albert and the Science Museum are just around the corner). But when went around the side and up Exhibition Road - we found that there were no queues to enter the museum from that side. We had to wait no longer than a few minutes and that to have our bags searched by a very grumpy security man. It wasn't worth the wait, but we did go through the slightly more boring entrance - without a big giant dinosaur skeleton gracing the main entry hall. But, it's possible to snake one's way through the earth history section and the minerals and so forth and into the fantastic main hall.

Natural History Museum London

And on your way, you can find out what happens to big giant sloths:

giant sloth

We didn't get to see the animatronic dinos - as the queue for that was very long indeed. But we did get to see a very outdated exhibition on human evolution and a very up-to-date indoctrination exhibition on ecology for children. It was geared for the young'uns and had just enough facts in it to turn them into little eco-warriors and brow beat their parents with environmentalism.

We did spend a minute or two looking at "being green in the garden" - where I could quite happily say "tick, tick, tick" to most of their green suggestions. After all, composting is the main good thing you can do - and that helps you reduce the need for chemicals and increase your yields all the while decreasing pressure on the landfills. I felt quite saintly, having spent the morning spreading compost I made myself. The little eco-warriour exhibit was comparitively empty though- despite the fact that it had gruesome displays of tigers disembowelling antelope and crows pecking out the eyes of hares. I guess kids prefer to see extinct animals eating each other in animatronic fashion rather than badly stuffed kitty cats stalking a bevy of badly stuffed rats.

A bloom a day

The sun emerged yesterday, weakly, but it was still there. Temperatures hovered just above 50, so I spent the morning in the garden catching up on garden tidying chores that I've been neglecting. I was mostly removing dead foliage and top dressing the beds with a layer of compost. I make my own compost out of garden waste and salad trimmings and so forth in a bin at the bottom of our garden.

Fancy at the shrine
Our compost bin, with decorative kitty lid.

It's good stuff and it was time to remove the finished compost at the bottom to make room for new material. As is the current fashion, I do not dig in the compost but top dress only and let the worms do the rest of the work for me. It takes a little longer for the organic matter to work fully into the soil, but it's less damaging to the soil structure. Plus my beds are chock full of bulbs and perennials, I don't want to disturb them either.

I got quite a bit of compost out and on the beds, but did not finish my garden work. There are still a couple of bucket loads to spread and I need to reload the fallen leaves and dead summer annuals into the bin. But today there's a return to the gray skies and a cold, slow rain and I don't much fancy getting out into that to finish up.

What's in bloom

It's my gardening goal to have something in bloom every day of the year. It might not be much - a tiny blossom here or there, but at least to have something. This year I still have some of my summer annuals in bloom in this last week of December. They don't look like much - a bit raggedy frankly, but the thunbergia and the osteospermum are still going as well as my mini-marguerittes. My little south facing, South London garden is sheltered and it has to be very cold indeed before things get hit hard by frost.

thunbergia osteospermum margueritte and mosaic
Not exactly as they look now.

But not only do I have some summer things still going, I also have crocuses about to bloom. The very same bulbs that didn't bloom until mid February last year. The weather is very strange indeed when you have blossoms from summer 2006 in competition with the bulbs of 2007.

Beyond our reach, dead or alive

It seems more likely than not that over the couple of days to a week that we'll find out that Saddam Hussein has died.

I'm not an advocate of the death penalty - I'll say that up front. But I'm also not a big fan of Saddam Hussein and I certainly won't shed any tears over that monster's demise. I have no doubt over his wretched guilt. And I think - in the long run - that the people of Iraq and the soldiers of the coalition will be safer without Saddam around.

But it seems to me that his trial and his imminent execution are kind of missing the point of what such trials ought to be about. Trials for war crimes or crimes against humanity or genocide or any of those acts which threaten to tip over from tragedy to statistics from the sheer weight of them aren't about punishing the guilty. People who order such atrocities are beyond our reach. Imprison them (to write books or hold out hopes of a re-established reign) or kill them to keep them out of the way, but you can't really punish them. Punishment requires an internal aspect a reflection on their acts which these people seem to lack. I imagine that Hussein will go to the gallows cursing his bad luck or his incompetent aides rather than his own rotten soul.

These trials aren't to make those who commit mass crimes to feel guilt. Their trials won't persuade the next megalomaniac to think twice before torturing and slaughtering their political opponents Their trials won't even produce a satisfactory explanation of why they did the evil they did. These big show trials for head honchos like those Nuremburg or Milosovic's trial at the Hague are about providing justice for the victims. A shoot-out (like the one resulting in the death Hussein's sons) or a suicide (like Hitler's) ends in the same result as Saddam's trial- a dead despot. But a trial allows the victims to have their story told. It allows the victims the satisfaction of making their perpetrator listen.

To be fair, trials of truth and hopefully reconiciliation probably need to take place in a world of relative calm and order to be of full value. And that is not the kind of place that Iraq is right now. But killing Saddam now, over a fraction of his crimes, robs his other victims of the chance to tell their tale on a world stage. Killing Saddam now ends the process of justice for the victims of his unspeakable acts.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006


It is so grey. I don't think I've seen the sun for days, barring a brief glimpse as the sun set over the rows of terraced houses in Colliers Wood this afternoon.

I'm still off work. Our office is essentially closed this week. I'm using my time wisely. I watched half an episode of Dr Phil (I'd never seen it before) and a tv movie about a teenage mom (until I switched from boredom). Then we watched Serenity on DVD. Snooze. To top it all, the Vol-in-Law made me watch a show about British macho beefcake of the 70s. Believe it or not, they actually stretched that out to a full hour.

It hasn't all been tv. We did take a walk in the park today. But the sky is so grey I couldn't even be bothered to take my camera out to the park. But here are some I took earlier.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Happy Boxing Day

Today is Boxing Day - a peculiarly English holiday which has spread as far as Wales. This was the servants' Christmas - if my understanding of the holiday is correct. In years past, stores were shut up tighter than a drum on Boxing Day just as they would be on Christmas Day. But like their American cousins, retailers now see the day after Christmas as a grand, grand day to fling open their stores in a bacchanalia of consumerism.

I succombed and dragged the Vol-in-Law out to a PC store to look at super cheap laptops. (Yeah, turns out there were only 10 per store and they were long, long gone). The ViL was a little hungover from our Christmas with a friend up the road - and did not fulfill his supporting shopper role as well as he might have. The parking lot was full and full of enraged customers. Most people just glared at one another, but one fellow shared with me the traditional post-Christmas parking hand gestures. So full of holiday cheer we escalated to exchanging the traditional day-after-Christmas parking greeting of "Fuck You". I however, was restrained, and did not actually roll down the window.

We left without making a significant purchase and returned home to paint our Christmas toys. VolMom sent us some paint-your-own garden gnomes. The Vol-in-Law was less than thrilled as he is stridently anti-yard art. I'm sure he views this as a betrayal from his mother-in-law, as my mom has always told him to take care of me, but never to let me fill the garden with tacky statuary - as to tell the truth, would be my wont.

My (unfinished) gnome is on the left, the Vol-in-Law's is on the right and the camel - once filled with oasis and used for a florist's bouquet is used for paintbrush water.


The ViL's gnome on its own.


And released into its new home - a very, very dark corner of our garden.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Merry effin Christmas

I've been wished Merry Christmas at a number of establishments in London, which is a little unusual since the British way of saying it is "Happy Christmas". I don't think "Happy Christmas" is wrong, but somehow to me it takes away the specialness of Christmas, you know it's Happy Birthday, Happy Valentine's Day, Happy President's why not have one holiday with a slightly different kind of joy?

Since the UK is about a year behind America in a number of social trends, I think the whole counter-revolution to the "war on Christmas" has finally drifted across the pond. Folks weren't that bothered about it before, but now they kinda are. It's weird. Sure there were the rabid commies in Birmingham who had "Winterval" - but if memory serves that was in January, so why not. And last year a neighbouring borough - Lambeth - erected "holiday" lights instead of Christmas lights - and after some opprobrium changed them back to Christmas lights without switching a single extension cord.

My council which is cheap, cheap, cheap value-for-money, as far as I can tell, leaves the lights up all year - saving money on labor and storage. The lights are a kind of non-distinguisable geometric pattern - and they become different lights at different holidays. Happy Diwali, Happy Eid, Happy Christmas - the lights change for the dates (no Happy Hannukah, I'm afraid - according to the last census there are more Americans living in my neighborhood than Jewish people - hmm, maybe they should switch them on for 4th of July!!). And not only that, but if you - as a merchant - would like some festive (Christmas, Diwali, Eid) lights in front of your store - then you gots to pony up the dough. The merchants on my street are of different faiths, but almost all of them display a Christmas greeting in their windows, which I think they also get from the council. Happy Christmas and Prosperous New Year it says. Most of them do a Happy Easter poster, too.

My work issues "Season's Greetings" to all of our clients, stakeholders and paymasters, but then again we are a Godless organisation full of former Communists and Labour party activists. As I blogged before, my coworkers have taken to not distributing Christmas cards - but instead emails with a salutation of "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings" are circulated amongst comrades colleagues with a holier-than-thou message about making a contribution to some worthy [secular] cause in lieu of Christmas cards.

I joined the trend, since I'm lazy as all get-out. But I took particular delight in giving to the Salvation Army - you could hardly give to a more overtly Christian charity - unless maybe I'd given money to Jay Sekulow's (Pat Robertson's fave-lawyer) "Christian" defense fund. But a) I would never give money to those raving crackpots and b) my British colleagues might not get it. And I did wish folks a Merry Christmas - plus a Season's Greetings, but that was ironically.

Last year we were in Tennessee for Christmas, and folks were all up in arms. I don't think I heard a single "Happy Holidays". At Dollywood there were militantly "Merry Christmas" - the ticket lady wished us a Merry Christmas and then gave us a glinty stare until we echoed the salutation. The driver of the train of golf carts which delivered us to our area of the parking lot lectured us on the importance of saying "Merry Christmas" instead of "Season's Greetings", which I had to say was a little less than merry. Apparently, the war on Christmas never made it to East Tennessee, but that didn't stop the locals of taking up arms in preparation. All that lecturing and glaring kinda took a bit of the joy out of the season for me.

The only person I met in Knoxville retail last year who insisted on Happy Holidays was my brother. According to him, he waited until he received a salutation from the Customer - and if it were Merry Christmas then he'd reply with a jovial "Happy Holidays" and a smirky smile.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Total law enforcement

The Vol-in-Law and I have just completed one of our annual Yule-time rituals. The paying of the parking permit.

Our parking permit expires around the end of December - and since we have no off street parking and we must pay to park in front of our own house (£66 or around $120 a year). I don't mind the permit cost for my borough - as in most things - provides pretty good value for money in terms of parking. Many other London boroughs charge far more.

But in the run-up to Christmas I often tend to forget to renew the permit and one year this resulted in some fairly staggering parking fines. Wandsworth gives a grace period, but when that's over, Wandsworth becomes the borough of total law enforcement. Firm but fair, if you park illegally - you will get a ticket. Those of you who enjoyed parking at the University of Tennessee will remember the student parking Nazis who revelled in ticketing for the slightest violation - or just ticketing because your car was there. I won't say that Wandsworth ticketers are quite so nasty as their comrades across the pond, but they do work on a similar quota system.

So, it was with some stress and anxiety that I "remembered" that we hadn't renewed our parking permit. We're cutting it pretty close now in terms of renewing by post, so I thought we'd have to make a little trip up to town hall and queue with the other supplicants for a new permit. But the Vol-in-Law phoned through and they told us that we'd have plenty of time to receive our new permit - what with the 7 day grace period. He's run out just now to post our application - (a necessary thing in the UK since letter carriers won't collect your mail for sending in the same trip). Let's hope it arrives in time.

UPDATE: It did arrive - before the end of the grace period. The Vol-in-Law installed the sticker in the car and we remained ticketless.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Fogged over

The fog is bad. In my time in London, I can't remember a fog like this. It's blanketing almost the whole country, but particularly the South East. It's a real pea-souper.

Heathrow has come to a standstill. (And for once it's not over labour dispute/terror). All domestic flights have been cancelled. Many flights to Europe have been delayed or cancelled. Long haul flights to the US or Australia are supposed to be running, but folks trying to get home for the holidays are spending a lovely festive time at Heathrow airport. They've decked the halls with emergency blankets.

I'm so, so glad we're not going anywhere this year.


We did go for a walk today, at the Vol-in-Law's special birthday request. It was foggy over Richmond Deer Park, too.

Happy Birthday

Happy Birthday, Vol-in-Law!

I've taken the day off work to cater to my husband's every whim (well, not really...). We're first off to our local caf, the greasy spoon where we'll have eggs cooked up by a Polish short order cook. We'll peruse the cafe's collection of tabloid "Red Tops", the Sun, the Mirror, the Express and Star while we eat - taking in a collection of photos of topless women (I shall just skim past that), celebrity gossip and tragi-comic tales of the lives of the British underclass.

Then we're off for a walk in Richmond Deer Park. It's the Vol-in-Law's favourite place to go in London. It should be a lovely walk. It's foggy and cold this morning. I can't remember such fog in the time I've lived in London - it's almost like the movies - a thick inversion, a real pea-souper. To be fair, it's not quite as thick and cloying as the old fogs, those fogs that killed, a combination of natural fog and thick black domestic coal smoke, inner-city power station smog and manufacturing emissions, but I've been waiting a long time to be able to say "a real pea-souper", so I will.

We'll come back home to have some ready-made lasagna I bought in moment of madness (I don't normally do that kind of thing) and salad with The Texan. That will be followed by my very own apple-spice cake, still warm from the oven, baked at the ViL's request. It requires buttermilk which I had to buy from the weird French-Muslim halal butcher that's opened up recently in our neighbourhood.

Happy Birthday, Vol-in-Law

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Did you hear the one about...

...the Bishop of Southwark?

The Bishop of Southwark has been behaving most strangely. He's been accused of being drunk and getting in someone else's car (without their permission) and throwing the toys found inside it out of it. When challenged on his behavior - he reportedly said "I'm the Bishop of Southwark. It's what I do."

He says he couldn't, just couldn't have been drunk - and must have had a head injury - because he was able to get from Southwark (an area just south of the Thames, home to London Dungeons, the Globe Theatre and Southwark Cathedral) to his home in Streatham (a South London area - not too far from where I live - and home to a movie theatre, gay bath house and the Bishop of Southwark - apparently).

The Bishop said that his Oyster travelcard records show that he used public transport from central London to his home in south Streatham, a trip which he insisted would be difficult to undertake while drunk. "I really do defy anyone who’s had too much to drink to make that journey," he said.

I just had to laugh. Not just laugh, but bloody guffaw. Negotiate London Transport - drunk? Make the journey to Zone 3 - drunk? I defy anyone who's been on the Underground after 1o on a weekday and after 8 on a weekend to question the fact that millions of drunken journeys are taken on public transport every year. I've contribulated to that statistic myself.

kitty diet update

For those of you curious about our attempts to slim down our fat cats, we have a kitty diet update. It's not going well.

ViL: The cats are fighting
Me: They're probably hungry
ViL: Have you fed them again?
Me: Not since this morning.
ViL: Do you think that's enough?
Me: Probably not, but they're supposed to be on a diet.

Well, we've tried to have our cats on a kitty diet, but I don't think it's working out too well. They look hungry, they look sad, and they are begging for snacks. And we are very weak.

We bought two big bags of "light" or "senior" cat food as the first step in our kitty diet. The first bag we served up was French and appeared to have a high proportion of hay. During the Bible reading of the carol service we attended on Sunday we heard "and the lion shall eat straw like the oxen". I thought of our poor little lions at home eating French hay.

Trouble was, the kitty cats actually liked the French hay and I think they worked on us separately to get us to refill their bowl more frequently. "Miaow, miaow feed me," they said. And we would. Or we'd say "Aww, it's Christmas - let's give them a little more." We were not very consistent. We were bad pet owners.

But they've eaten all the French hay now and they're on to English diet cat food. I thought that England was a nation of animal lovers, but I guess the traditionally shoddy approach to English food has overridden that natural love and the poor kitties don't find their new food quite so tasty. In fact, they've eaten a lot less of the English food and begged for more human treats since we opened the new bag. This isn't the end of the world - because the really fat cat, the one who actually needs to lose weight - isn't allowed to eat human food because she has a whole series of weird food allergies that cause her to itch and scratch until she literally bleeds. So even though I do love to see cats dance on their hind legs for treats - it's not really worth having a disgusting scabby cat as the price.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A Christmas Carol

We heard the letterbox snap Sunday morning and found an invitation to attend a carol service this evening on our front mat.

Personally, I'm a fan of attending the big, big carol services - like the one at St Paul's Cathedral. Not only is it a pretty good show, but normal admission to the cathedral is around £6 (that's almost $12 these days) - and the fee is waived if you're attending a service. But the Vol-in-Law is not keen as he feels he's being treated "like a piece of meat", which I grant is not a positive feature in a religious ceremony. Apparently, the big shows - like the one at St Paul's or Westminster Abbey are getting packed out these days - some hundreds of people were turned away from St Paul's Christmas Eve service last year (when we were in Lawrenceburg where we did not attend any church - although we did go to the Grand Ol' Opry on the 23d).

Since we didn't have any Christmas carol service planned we decided we'd go to the one where we'd been invited. Apparently it's our Church of England parish church - St Luke's - though I didn't have a clear idea where it was. Apparently the C of E has been guilty of gerrymandering their parishes in the past - and ours is oddly shaped and our house is tucked away in a distant cranny of the parish. Either that or they leafleted the wrong street.

The service was pretty good, the congregation was very friendly, and I knew most of the carols. The Vol-in-Law was impressed by the service, he was still talking about it the next day. But I guess there are some cross-cultural variations that make it hard for me to settle in at a carol service even after 10 years of living in England (not that I attended services every year). Here were some things that struck me:

  • Why can't they just let us sing out of the hymnal? That way I could have written music. I'm not the best singer but I do read music and so if I don't know a song very well I can at least drag myself along by sight rather than blundering and guess work. In fact, does the Church of England have hymnals or did you put them away before inviting the unwashed public in to your carol service?
  • Some British Christmas carols have extraneous notes - sort of like the "u" in colour. They aren't necessary and they'll always trip up the unsuspecting. For example, I know "Oh little town of Bethlehem" as a somber and simple song - it was presented to me as a song full of ladders and trills.
  • Too much bloody organ for me. The organ filled up one of the "wings" of the church (sorry, I don't know the official name, but I didn't grow up in a church with wings) and the sound boomed throughout. What with the saxophone and the bass guitar and the flute and the really, really high-falutin' soprano in the choir - I could barely hear myself sing, never mind try to anticipate the next note in a carol arranged in a way I didn't expect. Maybe I had too much Church of Christ growing up - but didn't Paul say raise up your voices in praise - not raise up your monstrous organ and cacophonous band. (Gee, that's some imagery I didn't anticipate in a post about Christmas church services)
  • English churches are cold, especially at Christmas time. Expect to sing in your coat. But parish churches are less cold than cathedrals. At my local parish church - I only needed my sweater.

Monday, December 18, 2006

where's my tax cut Mr Bush??

Reader "John Galt" passed along a link to New York Times article about Americans giving up their citizenship. Some of them do so for "convenience" and some to avoid paying the uniquely punitive US tax on expats.

Concern about taxes among Americans living abroad has surged since President Bush signed into law a bill that sharply raises tax rates for those with incomes ofmore than $82,400 a year. The legislation also increases taxes on employer-provided benefits like housing allowances.

All other developed countries tax on residency not citizenship. And this does piss me off...

But, I'm afraid I must reveal my low-rent, loser status. Up until recently, this hasn't really been a problem for me and though the plummeting dollar does put me in some jeopardy - It isn't really worth it to renounce my citizenship, not that I would anyway.

But it is worth it for me to take out British citizenship, 'cause if I move back to the US - I won't be taxed on my US income.

in the 'hood

I was just checking my stats when I discovered a lot of people were visiting my site from the search string "Tooting Broadway Murders" or "Tooting Broadway Stabbing". Hmm, I thought to myself, has there been a new murder in Tooting (my neighbourhood)?

Sorry to disappoint readers who wanted to read about this brand-spanking, new murder. My post is about these murders.

How tacky is that?

Ticky-tack, tacky. How tacky is that? Taaa-ky. I now even "Brit" it up, by saying, in that understated way- It's a bit tacky. Clearly I mean that it's very tacky indeed.

Tacky is one of my favorite words. Tim from Mother Tongue Annoyances gives the low down on the origins of tacky.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

It's dark

I've been in the UK for 10 years, and I'm still not used to the short days around this time of year. It's not light til nearly eight am and dark just before 4.

sunset Richmond Park

Doing good by being lazy

The Vol-in-Law wrote out a Christmas check to the Salvation Army, but it has sat - in its envelope- on our sideboard for some weeks now. He finally noticed it last night and after some self-excoriation, I told him not to worry about it - as I would make an online donation because I wanted to add a little bit extra.

I explained I wanted to add some more money because, as is the current fashion at my work, I can give to charity and then email my colleagues saying "I have donated the money I would have spent on Christmas cards to ___________. Please accept this email as an alternative."

The Vol-in-Law was apalled. "Do you mean," he said, "that you and your colleagues are too lazy to sign and address a few Christmas cards and so make a tiny donation and then send emails out instead. And then you expect to be lauded for your Christmas charity that you should have been giving anyway?"

"Yeah, that's about right."

And although he didn't give the exact quote:

But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, (Matthew 6:3)

...the Vol-in-Law did say something about right and left hands. I, too, remembered the lesson of Ananais and Sapphira which was played up big time at my grandfather's Church of Christ, and which I always thought was a bit harsh. And I thought of the other lesson of the man who let the coins fall into the collection from a great height and received his reward in that rather than in the Kingdom of Heaven.

And then I thought about how I wouldn't actually spend any money on Christmas cards since I have a box full of old ones that I've picked up in years past in the post-Christmas sales. Technically, I could give nothing and still send out that email. And then I thought about how I'm always rubbish at remembering to give cards to colleagues anyway, so this email thing might be the best possible solution all round.


Actually, I've just made the online contribution to the Salvation Army - and perhaps I'll be able to say in my email "I've made a donation over and above our normal Christmas gift."

Friday, December 15, 2006

Expert me

I don't normally blog about work matters, but a recent experience I felt was rather blogworthy.

I sat in on an expert group. This isn't the first time I've done this, Ive served on or convened several steering groups. But usually I know a little something about the topic at hand. Recently though, I was in a group of eminent parenting experts. Academics, leaders in the voluntary sector, think tank gurus, high-up muckety-muck civil servants and me. And we were all gathered round the table to talk about the design of effective parenting interventions.

HA! I don't know nothin' about raisin' no babies.

Fair enough, I was there as a last minute substitute and it was important that someone from my organisation was there to oversee proceedings.

I deal in BS - it's part of my trade. Plus - I love expounding, so while for the most part I just listened to the "real" parenting experts* - when it came my turn to recommend policy prescriptions for better parenting initiatives I had a few things to say about interventions for oiks (Britspeak for the lower orders):

Are there no workhouses? Idle hands are the devil's workshop. Down the mines and up the chimneys for the ugly kids - cute ones can become child actors or match sellers - that should reduce the level of crime on the streets.

And as for the parents, I blame them. Control those children - it's not as if you're doing anything like work. Take a momentary break from daytime tv to get those kids signed up with a work gang master. We'll all be better off without your urchin roaming the streets unsupervised and playing by the light of a roaring car fire - and you'll have more money for Silk Cuts and chips.

(Actually, I think I said something about communication styles and community based skills enhancement.)

*Apparently, the real parenting exerts have moved away from child-centred approaches and self-actualisation (I.e. Let the little tykes run amok) and are now favouring something called Webster Stratton - one of the academics saw my confusion - and said aka Super Nanny. Hey, I love to watch Super Nanny - so let me get behind that public policy.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

You can always tell a UT girl her calves.

I have a sturdy build. And when the end-times come, my peasant physique will stand me in good stead. But it's hell on fashion.

Knee hi boots are in - that is they're still in, and I still can't wear them. I can't wedge my thickset ankles and sturdy calves into those boots.

Vol-K was complaing about all those bird-legged British women on the streets of London with their skinny jeans and skinny legs and skinny boots.

Forget about it Vol-K, you have a degree in engineering from the University of Tennessee. That's too many treks up and down the Hill - plus the uphill both ways trips to Dougherty - not to leave a mark on those calves. Anyway, those skinny legged girls might exerience calf-snappage at any moment. Count your blessings.

Even when I was younger and thinner, my calves have always had a solidness about them. I was once working out at the Bubble - using the climbing machine (probably not helping matters) - when a guide brought a group of prospective UT students in. She pointed me out. She pointed out my calves. "See girls, after a year at UT- you can have calves like that, too."

I don't think those high school girls were too impressed.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

oh tannenbaum

We finally got the Christmas tree up. Vol-K was visiting London on business and she came down to the house yesterday. I made her decorate the tree and then make me dinner. You should come more often, Vol-K.

I wasn't the worstest hostess, though. I bought Ferrero Rocher and made spiced apple cider and tossed a salad to go with Vol-K's stuffed cabbage leaves. I put on Christmas music as she requested - so that she could decorate the tree.

In this view, you can't see the clutter

Here's Fancy, taking her place under the tree - the stones are to stabilise the tree. It's part of our defensive measures against Fancy's war on Christmas.

Here's what she did last year
2005-12-17 052

I have a little dreidel

For the past few days, I've had the little dreidel song running through my head.

I have a little dreidel, I made it out of clay,
And when it’s dry and ready, then dreidel I shall play
O dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay,
And when it’s dry and ready, then dreidel I shall play.

My dreidel’s always playful
It loves to dance and spin
A happy game of dreidel, come play now let’s begin.

At first it was just a happy reminder to look up the Hanukah dates, since I'm not Jewish and I don't celebrate Hanukah. But as a kid I had a fondness for any holiday that lasts eight whole days, celebrates food and involves multiple days of receiving gifts. Hanukah starts December the 16th. Now I know, but the dreidel song wouldn't stop - and of course I couldn't actually remember all of the real words. It became annoying. Really annoying.

Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel - running through my head,
One more verse of dreidel and I'll wish I was dead.
Apparently, I'm not the only person afflicted with dreidel-ness, because there's a whole website of alternative dreidel lyrics - some ridiculously silly, but bound to put kids into paroxysms of laughter. I have to admit this one tickled me.

I have a little dreidel. It came from the UK.
It wrote a little poem and then it shied away.

Blogger beta

OK, so I've been trying to mess around with the new blogger beta. I even developed a new blog just to try things out.

But the more I mess with the crazy templates - the more I think - why am I still messing around with blogger anyway?

Friday, December 08, 2006

hi-scale corruption

After my post about the scales (hopefully) falling from the eyes* of those people who still think we're winning in Iraq, I saw this:

I'm not going to read the ISG report because I think it a publicity stunt. I know more about Iraq than Sandra Day O'Connor.

What I did do was search the ISG report for "corruption" which is cited 15 times in the 84-page report and only in reference to Iraqi corruption. Three of the citations refer to ISG recommendations to combat Iraqi corruption.

Here at mrs panstreppon's blog at the TPM Cafe (read it - it's quite good)

Yes, I failed to mention the corruption at the first go - that is our corruption. I had generally wrapped up the corruption under the incompetence - as to me it's all about bad governance. At worst, one might hope that American officials would tut-tut at the underhanded dealings of Iraqi officials - but it looks like a lot of the pigs at the trough were red, white and blue. Here's a post I did some time ago on Iraq's lost billions.

*The Vol-in-Law who spends more time in the right wing blogosphere than I tells me that although the scales might have temporarily fallen from the eyes of the neo-cons; those who were momentarily blinded by the light have been scrambling around looking for those scales on the ground beneath them just so they could believe again.

Safe and sound!

Thanks for the concern Brittney!

Tornado Hits The Square Mile

The Vol Abroad? Are you okay?

That was pretty wild to see - 'cause sure, I'm used to concern about my safety in terms of bombs and stuff (even back in the "good old" IRA days). But bad weather? I'm far more used to worrying about y'all in Tennessee. The greenest state in the land of the free even makes British news every now then for the severe weather - and I have to dutifully check the news and say "Nah, that's hit those West Tennesseans again - nothing to worry about."* Or earlier this year when real, big scary tornados hit Nashville - while my cousin was undergoing an emergency C-section because of dangerous pre-eclampsia. (Cousin A and baby were OK).

Anyway, thanks. I didn't see the post til this morning - as I was slaving away at work til very late. But here's the comment, I left at Nashville is Talking.

Did it really hit the square mile** - holy crap. I was right next to one then!!! I work right near the City.

Yeah - I'm ok. The wind was whistling through the windows of my office building, but then it was all ok. I guarantee you I am the only one (and the other two Americans who work on my floor) who knows the correct procedure for tornado drills or real tornado hits. I could have BRAVELY led my comrades to a windowless corridor and told them to assume the position. I'm almost sorry it didn't happen!

There was big damage up in North West London (where we used to live). Being devoted South Londoners now (and generally not very nice people) we snickered at the news report and congratulated ourselves for one more good reason we no longer live in the Borough of Brent.

*Sorry Newscoma - I'm afraid I'm a rampant Grand Divisionist - but I'm working hard to overcome my prejudice.
**No - it did not really hit the Square Mile - but it was quite windy that way. I imagine someone's umbrella was turned inside out and perhaps an investment banker lost a hat. We actually heard thunder - a rare occurrence in Britain - especially in December.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

raped twice

The Guardian reports that female asylum seekers to the UK aren't likely to believed if they report they have been raped (as part of their political/racial repression).

This isn't surprising in a country with such a low rape conviction rate.


The Vol-in-Law, being the enlightened sort, says "I believe that they were raped, but we shouldn't allow everyone who comes from a country that's worse than here to have refugee status."

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Do y'all feel fooled yet?

Do y'all feel fooled yet? I mean, when you hear the newly confirmed Secretary of Defense Robert Gates saying "we're not winning in Iraq" do y'all feel that maybe you've been a little misled.

And when I say y'all, I mean all of you Bush loyalists. If you're managing to cling to "job done" and "we're winning" even now - I got to hand it to you. But I'm guessing that maybe you might feel just a little bit silly after your vehement denials of civil war, quagmire, incompetence, or the lack of strategy, vision, plan and execution.

I'm not gloating. I don't think very many people in America really wanted to see us fail to achieve altruistic or even patriotic objectives in Iraq and the region. I think this has damaged America. I don't think any American really wants that - even though we might disagree about what's in America's best interest from time to time. And I do believe that there's a threat of Islamism rising in the Middle East - and I hoped our actions in Iraq would help - but I think it's probably obvious now that we've only made things worse with Bush's Iraqscapade.

I'm not gloating. I believed Bush, too. I believed Tony Blair. Even for stuff I wasn't too sure about (ability to deliver WMD to UK in 30 minutes - I didn't believe that), I gave them the benefit of the doubt on. I just haven't believed them in a while. (And just so you know, it wasn't after the WMD didn't turn up - 'cause I admit - I believed that Saddam Hussein had them and I still wonder if maybe Saddam believed he had them).

It was easier for me, I admit, to shake off my belief in what Bush and Blair were saying and doing. After all, I vote Democrat in the US and support the Conservatives in the UK - so I didn't have any party loyalty to blind me in this case. But when I realised it was a passle of lies, incompetence and self-delusion, I felt fooled. I felt pretty angry with myself. Even worse, I felt angry with Bush and Blair for making me look stupid for believing them in the eyes of the Marxists and Islamists and woolly-headed leftists.

So, all you Bush loyalists, you neo-cons and true believers, I'm just wondering. Do y'all feel fooled?

Monday, December 04, 2006

meat allergy

I drafted a big long post about how some girl told me she had a meat allergy and wouldn't eat my cornbread dressing* - which just had chicken stock and cream of chicken soup, but not much in the way of real chicken. I thought she was a big fat liar. I thought she was just making it up and was just one of those faffy, pretentious people who doesn't eat ________ because they're allergic not because they just don't like it. I've never heard of anyone with a meat allergy.

But I thought before I posted it, I might at least google "meat allergy". Apparently, meat allergies can and do exist.

I still think there's a pretty good possibility she might just be making up her whole meat allergy thing.


*No biggie to me - just meant I had more leftovers.


hydrangea blossom

Hydrangeas are one of my favorite shrubs. My grandparents had one of those vivid blue ones off their patio. It was right behind the porch swing - sometimes we would swing a little too high on the swing and run into the hydrangea.

I was sad when my granddad cut down the hydrangea. The blossom above belongs to a different kind of hydrangea - the Vol-in-Law doesn't like those big bright blue, snowball-y looking kind. He probably doesn't like this kind either, so I should have just got what I really wanted.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Kitty diet

Prompted by this post - and the not yet dangerous or unsightly, but growing paunch of our slim cat - the Vol-in-Law has decided that he is putting our cats on a diet.

The first step was buying "senior, low-activity", i.e. lazy fat-cat cat food. We have switched from an apparently deee-licious imported American brand of cat food to a probably far less tasty brand of low-cal "la ligne" preserving French cat food. I think it might be mostly made of hay.

The second step will be PORTION CONTROL. This may be where we have been going wrong in the past. According to the diagram on the French bag of cat food (which shows one sleekit cat and how much it should eat and one fat cat and how much it should eat) - we may have been feeding our cats too much. Let's refer to the picture again:

served up

It's quite likely that we've been feeding our cats too much.

Unfortunately all the European recipes and portion sizes are in grams - a weight measurement - which means scales. This includes the cat food portion sizes. After 10 years in the UK - I still use American cookbooks because I use cups - a volume measurement. Using scales seems faffy and pointless - but I do have a scale somewhere. The Vol-in-Law must be serious about slimming these cats down because he:

1. asked me where the scale was
2. ventured into the chaotic pots and pans cabinet to find the scales (I heard the clanging from the other room and held my breath against breakages)
3. did not find the scales, but is determined to look in the cabinet above the oven (which is where I thought it was all along). That is the hard-to-reach storage space for disposable cups and plates, never-used and rarely-used nice tablecloths and cloth napkins and our collection of national flags for display on national holidays and the occasional international sporting events. (please don't ask why scales are in there)

Anyway, since we've not yet found the scales the cats have about a day or two left of the tasty American cat food (at least in terms of their current portion sizes) before they're put on the French hay.

Soon to be hungry

Friday, December 01, 2006

Fat cat

Two brothers are facing a private prosecution in the UK brought on by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). What's the charge? They let their dog get fat. Real fat.

Alex Wylie, a vet from Bury St Edmunds who treated Rusty, said that the dog suffered from painful joints and breathing problems. “He did literally look like a walrus. There were times when he couldn’t get up."

This being a nation of animal-lovers, the story is getting quite a bit of coverage.

I was looking at this picture of my cat on my Flickr account when a colleague glanced over my shoulder and said quite causually - "How many years do you think those brothers are going to get?"

served up
She's not fat - she's just extra fluffy.

fading beauty

hydrangea blossom
hydrangea blossom

This morning it's raining and blustery. Maybe winter is on its way.